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Eviction Laws and Tenant Rights in North Carolina

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In a Nutshell

Landlords in North Carolina can’t just change the locks, toss your belongings out on the front yard, or shut down essential utilities. A landlord must follow the eviction process in order to have a tenant evicted for any reason. Here's an overview of what this means for tenants in North Carolina.

Written by Upsolve Team
Updated November 18, 2021

In North Carolina, your landlord can evict you if you're behind on your rent, if you’ve violated your lease terms, or if your lease has expired. This article explains some of the protections you have if you’re facing eviction from your rental property in North Carolina.

What Is Eviction? 

Eviction, also known in North Carolina as “summary ejectment,” is a legal action a landlord brings in court to remove a tenant from the landlord’s property. Landlords aren’t allowed to evict tenants without a court order, and the sheriff is the only person authorized to evict tenants.

It’s illegal in North Carolina for landlords to use self-help tactics to evict a tenant. These include removing the front door, changing the locks, turning off utilities, and removing the tenant’s belongings. This is called an illegal eviction or illegal lockout.

Who Can Be Evicted in North Carolina?

Only tenants have certain notification rights in eviction proceedings in North Carolina, and only tenants can be evicted. A tenant is someone who has agreed to pay rent to a property owner. This agreement often happens through a lease. In North Carolina leases can be written or oral. North Carolina’s residential landlord-tenant laws are set out in Chapter 42 of the North Carolina General Statutes.

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Why Can Someone Be Evicted in North Carolina? 

Generally, evictions happen for the following reasons:

  • The tenant owes back rent or is short or late on rent.

  • The tenant has violated a lease term, such as smoking in a non-smoking area, keeping a pet where the lease doesn’t allow pets, or failing to keep the property clean.

  • The lease term has ended and the landlord has decided not to renew the lease.

Late, Short, or Behind on Rent? 

In North Carolina, a landlord can’t start an eviction proceeding against a tenant until the tenant is behind on paying rent. Rent is typically due on the first day of every month unless your lease agreement specifies otherwise. Your lease may also have a grace period, which gives you more time to pay rent.  

Before starting an eviction, the landlord must give the tenant notice to pay the rent within 10 days. If you pay the rent within that time, your landlord can’t evict you. The landlord can either tell you to pay the rent or write you a letter explaining that you’ll be evicted if you don’t pay it.

You can also move out in those 10 days. If you move out and don’t pay the rent, the landlord can use your security deposit to pay the back rent. After applying the security deposit to the back rent, the landlord can sue you if you still owe them money. If you don’t move out and don’t pay rent, your landlord can start the summary ejectment proceeding. 

Lease Expiration or Termination

Under North Carolina law, landlords can start summary ejectment proceedings if the lease has expired or if the landlord terminates the lease because the tenant violates it. Failing to pay rent is a common lease violation.

If your lease expires, your landlord can evict you if they decide not to renew or extend the lease. Tenants who stay past the expiration of the lease are considered holdovers. Still, your landlord must give you notice, though it doesn’t have to be in writing.

  • If you pay rent week to week, the landlord must give you a two-day notice to move out once the lease has expired. 

  • If you pay rent month to month, the landlord must give you a seven-day notice. 

  • If you pay year to year, the landlord must give you a 30-day notice to move out. 

  • If you live in a manufactured home, your landlord must give you a 60-day notice to move out.

If the tenant remains on the property after the lease has ended and the eviction notice period is over, the landlord can start eviction proceedings. 

If your landlord decides to terminate your lease based on lease breaches other than nonpayment of rent, the landlord doesn’t have to give you notice before filing an eviction action in court. Examples include disturbing your neighbors or keeping an unauthorized pet in the rental. North Carolina landlords can also evict renters for criminal activity, including possessing and distributing illegal drugs, and no notice is required. To evict you for breaching the lease, the lease must what’s called a forfeiture clause. This clause says the landlord can evict you for breaching the lease before the lease ends. 

The North Carolina Eviction Process 

This section describes the general process for residential evictions in North Carolina. 

What does a landlord have to do to begin an eviction?

To file an eviction action in North Carolina, the landlord must file a summary ejectment complaint with the court. The landlord can only do this after giving the tenant proper notice. The complaint has to be filed in the court where the property is located, and it must state the reasons for the eviction. Most eviction actions in North Carolina are filed in small claims court, but some are filed in North Carolina district courts.  

What happens once the eviction action is filed with the court? 

Once the landlord files the eviction complaint, the clerk court issues a summons, which tells the tenant where and when to appear in court. The tenant can be served with the summons and complaint by certified mail with return receipt requested or the sheriff can serve them personally. If these first two forms of service don’t work, the sheriff can place the notice visibly at the front door of the rental property. If the tenant is served by posting and doesn’t appear at the eviction hearing, the court can’t make the tenant pay any money, including past-due rent.

The tenant must respond to the eviction proceeding by filing a written answer with the court within seven days, excluding weekends and holidays. If you have a defense or counterclaim, you must include it in your answer and file it with the court before your hearing. Bring copies to court to give to your landlord and the judge.

In North Carolina, a state magistrate judge in small claims court usually handles the eviction proceeding. (Under certain circumstances, the landlord will file the eviction action in district court). The magistrate will hold a hearing and allow each side to speak. If the magistrate finds for the landlord, they will enter a judgment for possession, which gives the landlord the right to evict you. The magistrate can also order you to pay back rent and damages. If the eviction is based on unpaid rent, and if you pay the rent owed plus court costs at the hearing before the judgment is issued, the magistrate must dismiss the eviction proceeding.

If you don’t attend the eviction hearing, the court might enter a default judgment against you. This is referred to as a judgment of confession in North Carolina. If this happens, the court gives the landlord the relief they’re asking for and you lose. That’s why it’s important to show up at the eviction hearing.

Telling Your Side of the Story: Affirmative Defenses and Counterclaims

You may be able to raise certain affirmative defenses and counterclaims in defending the eviction action. You can argue these claims to the judge when it’s your time to speak in the hearing. You can strengthen your claims by submitting documents and bringing in witnesses to speak at the hearing. 

An affirmative defense is where you deny that you did what the landlord is claiming you did. For example, if your landlord claims you failed to pay rent on time, but you can submit proof that did pay your rent on time, you have an affirmative defense. You support this with documents showing that your rent check has cleared the landlord’s bank.  

You can raise a counterclaim to an eviction. You need to raise any counterclaims when you file your answer and then you can argue your counterclaim to the judge at the hearing. A counterclaim is where you agree that you violated the rental agreement such as not paying rent, but you argue that the landlord has done something that excuses your obligation to pay rent.  An example would be if the landlord cut off your heat in the winter. Note that in North Carolina, you have to get a court order before you can withhold rent if your landlord does something like this. 

What Happens After an Eviction Trial?

The court may enter judgment on the day of the eviction hearing or sometime later. If the landlord wins, they can remove you from the premises unless you file an appeal within 10 days to the district court. Ask the clerk of court to give you a form for filing your appeal. Filing an appeal stops the eviction from happening during the appeal process. If you appeal the eviction, you must pay any back rent to the superior court and any rent that accrues during the appeal. This is called a rent bond, and you must pay it to stay in the rental during the appeal. In North Carolina, it costs $150 to file an appeal, but you can get this waived if you can’t afford it.

If you don’t appeal, the court must still wait at least 10 days before taking any more action on the eviction. When the 10 days have passed, the landlord can ask the court to issue a writ of possession. You then have five days to move out of the rental. After the five days ends, the sheriff will place a padlock on the door of the rental. After the sheriff padlocks the rental, you have five to seven days to arrange a time with the landlord to remove your belongings.

Practical Tips for Tenants Facing Eviction in North Carolina

Often, you can stop an eviction through good communication with your landlord. If your landlord has started eviction proceedings, you may want to contact them directly and ask if you can work out an agreement so you don’t have to go to court. For example, you could agree to move out by a certain date if the landlord stops the eviction proceeding. Since the mere filing of an eviction action can hurt your credit score and harm your ability to rent other properties, this might be the best option for you. 

Make sure any agreement you come to is put in writing and signed by both you and your landlord. Remember to return the keys to the landlord when you move out. 

If you’re being evicted, make sure to keep any records that can help your case. If you’re being evicted for damaging the rental property, keep documents, photos, videos, or other evidence of the property’s condition. You could also hire a municipal building inspector to submit a report detailing the property's conditions. 

Remember that if you don’t show up at your eviction hearing, the court will likely enter a default judgment against you and the landlord will win the eviction case. If you absolutely can’t attend the hearing, inform the court clerk. You can also ask to have the hearing rescheduled or continued. North Carolina only allows continuances up to five days.  

Finally, if your landlord threatens an eviction action, you may want to hire an attorney or tenant’s rights lawyer to find out your legal rights and obligations.

Tenant Resources in North Carolina

See the following useful links and resources for North Carolina tenants facing eviction:

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